How to tell ale from lager, plus every beer in between

  • December 18, 2012 | Kate Rau

All beer, from Castle Milk Stout to Hansa Marzen Gold, is made from the same four basic ingredients: water, starch, yeast and flavouring. And while beer fundis may classify their grog according to how to it looks, tastes, smells and feels in the mouth, traditional beer classification is essentially very simple. It’s either ale, or lager.

Let’s start with the contents

Beer’s chief ingredient is water. Up to 97% of beer is H20, which, in certain cases, can give beer a distinctive flavour or, in correct terms ‘character’. In Dublin, for example, the hard water in the area is perfectly suited to making stout, while in Burton, England the water carries gypsum – a soft mineral used in plaster casts – that aids in the brewing process of pale ale.

The starch source of beer – usually a form of malted grain – is what makes beer ferment. Throughout the beer-making process it’s the starch that contributes to the flavour and strength of beer, and once brewed it’s the starch that contributes to the beer ‘calorie count’.

Different types of grain can be malted as a starch source, even oats, rice, wheat and rye, though malted barley is most common. The barley – and other starches – becomes malted via a process of soaking, germination and roasting. The grain is then milled and mashed, or steeped in hot water to aid the enzyme reaction of fermenting grain and converting starch to sugar.

Hops are what give beer its flavour (and aids in preservation of the liquid, too). The flowers of the hop vine, hops, bring a bitter taste to beer that counteracts the sweetness of the malted grain and fermented sugars. The amount of hops added depends on the level of bitterness required.

Yeast is the most important ingredient when it comes to beer basics. This key micro-organism turns the sugary malt, mash, hops and water combination into beer by bringing fermentation into the mix. As a result, alcohol and gas is produced, which gives beer its bubbles and its alcohol content. It’s yeast that makes the most difference between ale and lager.

Top and bottom fermentation – the difference

When yeast cells initiate the fermentation process, when the yeast clumps together and almost starts bubbling or multiplying, the term that describes its behaviour is ‘flocculate’.

Although the same yeast is used, yeast in ale flocculates at the top of the fermentation tank and yeast in lager flocculates at the bottom. That, in essence, is the difference between ale and lager.

But in order to brew different beers and create an environment for the yeast to flocculate, the temperature of the liquid is changed. Ale yeast flocculates at between 17 and 20°C, so the liquid is kept warmer while brewing, and lager yeast flocculates at a much cooler temperature of between 8 and 12°C. Naturally, ales ferment quicker due to the warmer temperatures than lagers.

Although both are beer, the two are as different as red and white wine. Lagers are clean-tasting and refreshing beers with a light flavour and a light smell. They are best served ice-cold. Ales are more complex, with a variety of flavours and smells. They are often served at room temperature and have a rich taste and smell, sometimes with a fruity or spicy flavour.

No matter your preference, be sure to know the difference between ale and lager – it certainly makes for interesting chats at the bar.

Types of ales

  • Pale ale looks just like it sounds – pale. Compared to a stout, this beer is light in colour and offers a balanced taste of sweet and bitter
  • Brown ale has a distinctive nutty taste and feels smooth in the mouth. It’s not very bitter and has low alcohol content

  • Bitter is ale that isn’t bitter at all. It has a rich ‘hoppy’ and malt flavour
  • Porter is a black predecessor of stout that is popular with people who like to brew their own beer. Essentially it’s a combination of brown ale and old ale, and has a roasted chocolate flavour

  • Stout is a rich, black beer with a lot of flavour. The expert palate can usually detect notes of coffee, roasted barley and lovely sweetness that is offset by the bitter hops
  • Wheat beer is exactly what its name suggests – made of wheat. A Bavarian specialty, wheat beer comes in a variety of brews – from the pale and softly-flavoured drink to a more yellow strain that tastes rather spicy

  • Barleywine is a beer for those with a big mouth. It’s got plenty of malt and just as much hops, and will leave your tastebuds jumping

 

Types of lagers

  • Pilsner isn’t one of the most popular beer types in the world for nothing. It has a subtle taste and a pronounced bitterness that makes it fresh and clean-tasting
  • Bock is a rich and malty lager that is more sweet than hoppy. It’s usually dark brown or amber in colour.

  • Marzen, or Oktoberfest, is served at the German Beer Festival and is a malty beer with a good dose of hops added
  • Dunkel is a subtle beer that is smooth, easy-drinking and generally understated

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